Mercy cargo brings hope to arid land

A Week in the Life: Shemeles McKonnen, water engineer
Click to follow
The Independent Online
SHEMELES McKONNEN has worked for Oxfam since 1989, mostly in Ethiopia but more recently in southern Sudan. His job is to drill bore holes to provide precious potable water in this famine-hit part of Africa. The wells are located at food distribution sites where thousands of displaced Sudanese gather. He has to get heavy equipment to these sites, assess the need for water sources and organise local teams to drill the holes.

Fifteen years of civil war between the Islamic government in Khartoum and the Christian and animist south - which has claimed at least 1.5 million lives - have made southern Sudan one of the most difficult places to operate in. The landscape is endless bush, inhabited by nomadic cattle herdsmen and subsistence farmers.

Aid has to be delivered by air to dirt landing strips, which are useless during the rainy season. There are about 55 relief agencies working in southern Sudan, which share the limited number of planes "so it can be difficult to get construction materials, spare parts and food to the field on time".

The area held by the southern rebels alone is twice the size of France but there is no infrastructure. There are only six miles of roads so everything must be transported by plane: "Sometimes days can be lost, just waiting for a plane."

Shemeles is a 32-year-old Christian from Ethiopia, which has had its own share of war, famine and suffering, but he says: "I cannot compare it in any way to the situation in Sudan. Here the situation is so much worse because of the conflict. People have to walk for weeks to find a feeding centre."

He regularly sends money back to relatives who live in Jijiga, in eastern Ethiopia. But family contact is rare. "There is no way of contacting them when I'm on site. I only really see them at new year," he says. He has a girlfriend in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, but doesn't see her much either - about every three months.

It's dawn on Saturday and Shemeles grabs a cup of coffee at Lokichokio, the forward logistics base in northern Kenya. It has become one of the busiest airports in Africa. Shemeles is heading to the airstrip to board a cargo plane for Malualkon, in southern Sudan. After a two-and-a-half hour flight they find the landing strip is flooded and cannot land.

The drilling at Malualkon will have to be postponed. They land at Mapel, half an hour away, one of the few all-weather airstrips in southern Sudan. Oxfam has a water and sanitation programme here that is supervised by drilling a engineer.

After 45 minutes they have unloaded the cement, iron bars and gravel, which has to be transported from Lokichokio as there is no gravel in southern Sudan. Shemeles sets up a tent - his home for the next week. He heads for the site where some of the relief agencies have care centres. They have built the few proper buildings in the area. "The local people live under the trees or they build small round tukuls [mud huts with grass roofs]."

By midday it's 40C and too hot to work. After a meal of rice and beans, Shemeles contacts the office at Lokichokio by radio to tell them of his change of plan. After a couple of hours it's a bit cooler and they start to drill the first bore hole. They aim to drill four more, to provide water for the care centres.

Work starts at 6.30 the next day, to avoid the heat. He heads to the site to meet the workers: a construction team of five and a drilling crew of four, including a woman, which is unusual in southern Sudan. He gives them instructions and has time for tea and a biscuit, mosquitoes already buzzing round his ears. The drilling continues. It will take the rest of the week, with hand drilling equipment, to drill one 30-metre hole.

By Wednesday, the population at Mapel has grown to 4,500, victims of the civil war and the drought. Shemeles says: "The people most affected by the famine and conflict are women, children and the elderly. Most are severely malnourished as they have been walking for up to a month across hostile terrain without any food other than what they can forage for in the bush."

Shemeles doesn't feel like an outsider, as he has got to know the local officials and local agency people from his time working in his native Ethiopia. A few know his native tongue, Amharic, and sometimes invite him to their tukuls, but these can be so hot that they sit under the shade of trees and drink the local spirit, areki.

The next day he heads back to Lokichokio. From there he will soon be off to the next disaster area in southern Sudan.